Putin has turned to Xi to counterbalance US and European pressure, particularly over the 2014 annexation of Crimea, while Xi has been only too happy to count Russia among its allies as he expands his influence westward through his signature Belt and Road infrastructure and trade megaproject and looks to counter the impact of the the US-China trade war.
As the challenges facing China racked up last year, so did cracks in Xi’s facade. Anti-government unrest in Hong Kong, the ongoing US-China trade war and even rising pork prices were all major tests for Xi, and not ones he has handled particularly well.
Xi’s ability to control dissent far outweighs Putin’s, however. Since reaching the top of the Communist Party, Xi has tightened internal discipline, using an anti-corruption campaign to root out bad actors and — critics say — go after potential challengers. He also has a colossal propaganda apparatus to rally support around him in times of challenge, and faces no opposition outside of the CCP, nor even the chance that such a figure could arise without a radical transformation in the way China operates.
For all Putin’s adroitness in political imagery and propaganda, he does not helm a state as powerful or as centralized as China. Russia’s democracy is deeply flawed, but the institutions it contains create a venue for open criticism of Putin and his policies, and for building power bases from which to challenge him. There is still independent media in Russia, albeit operating under intense pressure from the state, and even state-run outlets are less tightly leashed than they are in China.
Xi has already faced major challenges that could, in a weaker system or for a weaker leader, have derailed his bid for greater and greater power. There is reason to expect that he can weather several more, thanks to his grip on the CCP and the party’s tight control of all aspects of government and popular discourse.
Of course, Putin’s recent reshuffling could be a bid to gain exactly the type of power that Xi currently holds. He has been Russia’s paramount leader for 20 years now, and any attempt to turf him out would take a humungous effort or years of preparation. In that time, he could build up a system of control modeled on his Chinese ally’s.
At present, however, for all Putin may aspire to adopt the Xi model in Moscow, he will have to tread carefully.